Dedicated to the memory of Max Richards. Friend and poet mentor.
Narrator: Annie Dillard: ponderer of life, astute observer of nature. Her prose constantly calls us to position and reposition ourselves in response to her ideas and those of other quoted essayists, poets, philosophers, scientists, rabbis, anthropologists……. Statement of fact and interpretative meaning often go hand in hand. Sometimes it feels as if we, the reader, fall through her prose. Sometimes, it’s like journeying through dense bushland. Her voice is bold; she makes plain statements but seems to withdraw just as quickly, to let silence and gaps speak as eloquently as any well-formed phrase spiced with artless aside. She is a writer slippery as an eel who leads the reader down into caverns of ideas and questions: about life, suffering, God, existence. She challenges us and plays with us. But there is a tender quality to her prose, a kindness even in throes of her tearing passions, or barking at God, or sudden unexpected shift of reasoning. She always has us the reader in hand; not tightly, but as invitation, utilising her sharp wit and craft, humour to full effect. A wily weaver of phrases; her writing is soaked with humanity.
American Childhood: I grew up in Pittsburgh in the 1950s, in a house full of comedians, reading books. Possibly because Father had loaded his boat one day and gone down the Ohio River, I confused leaving with living, and vowed that when I got my freedom I would do both.
Narrator: American Childhood is Annie Dillard’s autobiography and here she consciously constructs a portrait of her early life and her growing sense of selfhood in the world. She is the eldest of three girls: Amy, second. Dillard tells us Amy ‘was a looker’ and that Annie had ‘made several attempts to snuff baby Amy in her cradle’.
American Childhood: Mother had repeatedly discovered me pouring glasses of water carefully into her face.
Narrator: But Molly, the youngest, as a baby was different.
American Childhood: I liked everything about her - the strong purity of her cheerfulness, bewilderment, outrage; her big dumb baldness, pointy fingers, little teeth, the works.
Narrator: However, it’s adolescence that tells us most about Annie Dillard’s emerging self in the world.
American Childhood: I was what they called a live wire.
Narrator: Adolescence is her first great awakening. All sorts of dynamic emotions were bubbling up inside her. Anger she describes then as feeling…..
American Childhood: ….myself coiled and longing to kill someone or bomb something big…..
Narrator: So too, aspects of life and other people became apparent.
American Childhood: ……..Sometimes in class I couldn’t stop laughing; things were too funny to be borne. It began then my surprise that no one else saw what was so funny.
Narrator: As a teenager Dillard read Rimbaud, the French symbolists, British War Poets, Lucretius, Hardy, Updike, Emerson……
American Childhood: I read with the pure exhilarating greed of sixteen, seventeen year olds; I felt I was exhuming lost continents and plundering their stores.
Narrator: She discovered passion.
American Childhood: I loved my boyfriend so tenderly, I thought I must transmogrify into vapour. It would take spectroscopic analysis to locate my molecules into thin air. No possibly way of holding him was close enough. Nothing could cure this bad case of gentleness except, perhaps, violence: maybe if he swung me by the legs and split my skull on a tree? Would that ease this insane wish to kiss too much his eyelids outer corners and his temples, as if I could love up his brain.
Narrator: During these years, her energy and her questioning broke many social boundaries: she wrote a ‘fierce’ letter to her minister and quit the church; she was suspended from school for smoking cigarettes; she played her father’s snare drum so hard ‘on a particularly piercing rock-n-roll down beat’ that she broke straight through it. Taking up an offer to join a drag race with some boys she hardly knew and in the process breaking both her knees, she was sent to juvenile court - her parents were horrified to read an account of the incident in a newspaper. But it was during this period too, Dillard came to realise that adolescence is a time when although your consciousness is